Can Mindsets Be Contagious?

My last post about Jay Atwood’s presentation on finding your “hedgehog” has led me to think about how much my own strengths and passions were taught to me, and how much of it is simply innately part of my own mindset. I am open to learning as I go, trying new things and not being afraid to fail because I have creative confidence and a growth mindset. Did I learn that mindset in school? Did it come from my parents? Or is it simply an innate part of who I am? Can I teach this to my students by just modeling behaviour?  

How might we encourage students to dive into problems when they don’t know all the answers; to look at problems as opportunities to help other people; and to be fearless in the face of failure?

There are tons of resources and research on this topic. I’ve read the work of Carol Dweck on Growth Mindset, watched TED Talks by Angela Lee Duckworth on Grit and even had my students try WOOPing after learning about the work of Gabriele Oettingen. And over the years, I’ve tried to develop these ideas into practical methods in my classroom. At Greenwood, we refer to all of this as Intellectual Character, and it is one of the pillars of our work as teachers. According to David Light Shields:

IMG_1435 (1)In the teaching of every explicit curriculum, there is an implicit curriculum. When teaching is focused on transmitting facts, training in discrete skills, and preparing for tests, students are implicitly taught that the content itself is most important. When the content is taught in a more inductive, open, exploratory manner, when the teacher models and encourages inquiry, open-mindedness, critical thinking, and curiosity, then intellectual character can be developed along with content knowledge (Shields, “Character as the Aim of Education”, 50).

Over the past five years, I’ve been developing courses built on a framework of Design Thinking + Project Based Learning + Place Based Learning. Each year I have learned something new from the experience and iterated on the project from year to year. Here is what I have learned so far:

Structured Thinking Leads to Creative Freedom

Each year, my grade 11 students take on a design thinking challenge that seeks to address sustainability within our food system. The students start by learning about the design of our food system from a variety of perspectives. We watch documentary films about farmers, interview other students, work with students at Humber College to learn about design, and read authors like Michael Polllan.

Learning design and building techniques alongside students at Humber College.

Learning design and building techniques alongside students at Humber College.

The students begin to understand that there are many complex problems that need to be solved within our food system, from pesticide use to obesity and food deserts.

They then target one user within the food system: it could be a young family on social assistance or a college student living in a dorm. Some have chosen to work from the farmer’s perspective, others from the food distribution point of view. They develop a profile for their user, and do their best to get some actual, first hand feedback from these users.

Next the students work through a series of prompts that require them to think deeply about the root of their problem. Students move from statements like: “My problem is that organic food is too expensive” to “How might we lower transportation costs for small, independent farmers?”  Or “My problem is that Canadians must rely on imported food for most of the year” to “How might we provide sustainable, locally grown food to communities in Canada’s Northern Territories, year round?”

I added this highly structured process of refining the problem to the project this year, using an activity from Stanford’s As a result, student’s creative approaches to the solutions showed more variety in both scope and product than ever before.  

A Mindshift for Students And Teachers

This type of project is new for students. Instead of the teacher telling them: “You need to know X, and you’re going to produce Y to show me that you know X” I say to them “You tell me: what is the problem and how are you going to solve it?”

Naturally, some students struggle with this at first. They want to know how to be successful. I provide success criteria based on their process, thinking skills, research and application, but there is no one right answer. This is a challenge for some students, especially those who figured out how to get good marks by memorizing right answers.

IMG_2012And more importantly, as the teacher I don’t always know the answers. I learn alongside them, figuring things out at we go. I can’t count the number of times a student has asked me a question to which I answered “I have no idea.” But, then with a little research and some trial and error, we figure it out. For example, four years ago, a student came to me and said “I want to build a hydroponic garden for my solution.” I had exactly zero experience in hydroponics. In fact, I am a borderline house plant serial killer. But I called a couple friends, paid a visit to a local hydroponics store and set to work with my student, building a hydroponic farm and flooding the classroom several times along the way. The hydroponic garden caught on the following year and led to aquaponics and incorporating LED lights. Now, we are working with a grade 5 computational thinking class in Germany to develop computer programs to control our systems. Why not?  

The point is, although we struggle at first, students soon begin to take ownership over their projects and the class becomes about them and their projects, not about me or what I have to tell them. We arrive in class and before I can even give any instructions, the students set to work on their projects. This project lasts six weeks, and after the first few classes of structured design thinking methods, I don’t make a single lesson plan. I can’t possibly plan where they are going next and they are all going in different directions. Instead, I spend my time hopping around from student to student, helping to troubleshoot, pushing them forward, giving them resources, encouraging them to think deeper or differently, and reminding them to reflect on their work.

The Keys To Success

Over the years, I have discovered a few things that help to create a successful design thinking, project based learning endeavour:

  1. Be transparent. If you don’t know something, just say so. The students will see that you don’t have to know exactly how to do something in order to figure it out and they begin to see trail and error as a process, rather than focusing so much on getting things exactly right the first time.
  2. Talk openly about the mindsets. These videos on, are a great place to start. For the first couple weeks of this project, I started each class with one of these videos and had students share their reactions on a padlet. Tell them that they are allowed to fail. In fact, I tell my students that if they don’t fail at least once during this project, they are probably doing it wrong.
  3. Talk about how this approach is different than what they are used to, and tell them why you are doing it. This was a big revelation to me. At first, I thought that I should just dive into teaching this way and for some reason not explain why I was taking this approach to teaching. But, I have found that the more I tell my students about my pedagogical approach, the more they get on board.  I’ve shown them videos by Sir Ken Robinson, had them read articles by Tony Wagner, and shared my own research and blog posts with them. They begin to see themselves as pioneers in education alongside me, rather than just passive passengers along for the ride on one of Ms. McBeth’s crazy experiments.
  4. Let them fail. Sometimes, it’s hard to watch a student try something that you know isn’t going to work. Our instinct is to jump in and tell them that there’s a better way. But, by intervening we do three things:
    • We rob them of the learning. Through failure, they are forced to rethink and retry, grapple with new ideas and analyze where they went wrong. They are learning about persistence, so sometimes you might need to jump in and encourage them to try again rather than give up, but don’t tell them how you think they should do it.
    • We undermine their ability to figure it out by themselves and find victory on their own, which is something they will remember in the future. Think about it: there are some small victories that you remember from school, right?
    • We assume that we are right, but maybe they are right! I can’t tell you the number of times students have been building something and I thought to myself, “this is never going to work.” And then it does. Those are the  moments when I am especially glad that I didn’t jump in and redirect them. Judging from my experience, I’d estimate that that my students are smarter than me 50% of the time.
  5. Have fun and allow for the impossible and absurd. I laugh a lot during this project. Usually it is because a student has a crazy idea, like designing a coffin that uses your remains to fertilize a tree, and I encourage them to follow it. Students will often say to me “wait, can I actually do that?!” The answer is almost always “yes.” Let them have fun and be free to explore ideas that might not work, or try something that they’d never be able to try in another classroom. These are often the best ideas. (Someone in the real world is actually making that coffin right now and funding it on Kickstarter. My student has graduated, but I sent him the link to let him know his idea is alive and well. No pun intended).  
  6. The thing that Holly built.

    The thing that Holly built.

    Empower them to build things with their own hands. One of my favourite moments this year came when Holly, a Grade 10 student put the finishing touches on her aquaponic garden, plugged in her LED light systems and exclaimed “I built something!” She was so sincere in her pride and genuinely surprised by her own achievement that I realized this might be the first time she has ever built something with her own hands. Our student’s lives are so entrenched in the virtual, they rarely have the opportunity to build something real. As I wrote about in an earlier post, one way in which I have realized my own growth mindset is in the building of my house, figuring it out as I went. When I bring out the tools in class, many students have never used a drill or a soldering iron before, but they soon realize that it’s not as difficult as they thought, if used properly and safely. As a woman who grew up in a house full of girls with an electrician for a dad, IMG_1889my sisters and I were using power tools from a young age. I have many small moments of pride each year when I hand a young woman a drill and show her how to use it. There’s something very empowering about women using tools, even in the 21st century.

At the end of it all, the students have something that they have created, that they can share with others and that solves a real problem for real people. Will any of them go on to a career in agriculture? Most likely not. But, will they approach life with a new mindset? Maybe, a few of them will catch the mindset through the process, and jump into their next challenge in life, fearless in the face of failure.


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3 comments to “Can Mindsets Be Contagious?”
  1. As always, you and your posts are so inspiring to me to change up the way I run my course. I can’t wait to start next year’s class being transparent with my students about how it is going to go, and jump on the learning train with them!
    Although I’ve made small changes already for this year, getting students on board with the growth mindset from the beginning will be key, I think, for the success of this approach. It’s such a huge shift from the way students are used to “learning” (i.e. memorizing and regurgitating)!

  2. I realised I hadn’t commented but I want you to know that I loved this blog – it resonated with me and what I try to do in my classes. I think this is maybe where I went astray this year – not enough talk about mindsets and embracing the difference of the approach to what they’re used to!

    Great post!

  3. I think with that kind of fantastic mindset as a teacher, of course the mindset is infectious to your learners! What I am grappling with now is how can I find ways to inspire colleagues to shift their mindsets, without seeming ‘preachy’

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